Defying the odds – Celebrating Europe’s underdogs

Football is truly universal. Every second of every day will see someone taking part in ‘the beautiful game’ in some format, whether it be kicking a ball between a pair of jumpers on a sodden English field; or scoring a sublime bicycle kick on the sun-kissed beaches of Brazil.

The truly stand-out feature of the sport is that it’s accepting of everyone, regardless of gender, personality or background.

The fact that so many people are involved makes it easy to forget about these far-away places; the places where football is lived and breathed, but nobody is really aware. The countries dangerously low in the world rankings are perhaps where the game is loved the most.

After all, who else can boast about match day attendances other than San Marino and the Faroe Islands, who have roughly 10% of their overall population come to support their national team.

The Faroe Islands are windswept and barren in places, meaning that simply trying to play a game of football is a struggle. The weather is changeable and unforgiving, and with a lack of indoor pitches, players are unable to truly develop and hone their skills.

Despite this, the natives still embrace the sport, and their national team are rapidly gaining increased recognition for their passionate performances on the international stage. It is somewhere not many know about, or even hold a thought for.

But with the expansion of UEFA’s primary international tournament and inspired by the recent successes of their Icelandic neighbours, perhaps sooner, rather than later the Faroe Islands will make a splash on the international stage.

San Marino may only be known primarily for their 1993 fixture against England. The visitors needed to beat their hosts by seven goals in order to swing the goal difference in their favour in what had been a horrendous World Cup qualification campaign.

Many expected even a stuttering England to achieve this, however, a goal from Davide Gualtieri in just 8.3 seconds left ‘the Three Lions’ qualifying hopes dashed on the rocks.

But there is so much more to the micro state, who continually attempt to defy the odds, and silence their biggest critics.

Their first official game came in 1990, where they were defeated by Switzerland 4-0 in a European Championships qualifier. And since this match, the tiny nation has competed in every qualifying tournament for both the European Championships and the World Cup – despite not managing to record a win in either competition thus far.

But it certainly isn’t through a lack of trying. With a team full of semi-professionals, San Marino turn up and give their all without fail every game, despite being on the wrong end of many unflattering score lines. This persistence paid off, on one record-breaking day in 2004.

The plucky minnows lined up against Lichtenstein in a friendly. With a crowd of roughly 700, San Marino took an early lead through Andy Selva, the country’s record caps holder and goal scorer.

The breakthrough came from a well-worked set piece; a fine example of a team using their initiative despite having the odds firmly stacked against them. Selva received the lay-off from a short free kick and thundered the ball home, sparking jubilation for the white shirts of San Marino.

Lichtenstein pushed for an equaliser, but were consistently met with an unyielding defence that threw itself into every tackle in a frenzied fight for their country. The heroics paid off, as San Marino held out for the win – their first and sole victory in their entire history.

But for every positive, there are always sure to be many more negatives for a team seen only as international whipping boys – simply someone to play and comfortably seize maximum points from.

Just two years after their famous victory, San Marino then suffered the worst defeat in their history. Germany hit thirteen past the helpless home side, breaking a record for the biggest score margin in European Championship qualifying history in the process.

Striker Lukas Podolski fired home four, while Schweinsteiger, Klose and Thomas Hitzlsperger all scored twice, in what is still one of the more ruthless performances to date.

But despite the poor performance, San Marino’s efforts were watched by a crowd of just over 5,000. This figure is made even more remarkable as the population of the entire country is only 27,000.

In dismal conditions, the San Marinese turned up in their droves, and cheered their warriors on until the final whistle. As goal after goal flew in, and their teams’ heads visibly dropped, the crowd continued to find their voice – a show of true defiance of the horror show playing out in front of them.

A dreary spell for San Marino saw them fail to score in over five years, until 2013. Alessandro Della Valle scored their first competitive goal after the most barren of sterility against Poland. With the Polish leading 1-0, Della Valle headed home a free kick in the 22nd minute. But despite the classy finish, Poland still ran out 5-1 winners.

It is an all-too familiar story for the permanent underdogs, as every ounce of effort normally leads to no end product. Where the most established countries on the international stage will still scrap every game, they will be infinitely more likely to pick up points at the end. Being a San Marino player must be an arduous burden with no promise of changing fortunes.

But the minnows could only continue doing what they always have done, which is to keep fighting. Finally, they gained some consolation for their efforts. In November 2014, San Marino drew 0-0 at home with Estonia, breaking several unwanted statistics at the same time.

It was the first time in ten years that the team hadn’t lost a game, marking the end of a 61-match losing streak. The stalemate also earned San Marino their first ever point in a European Championship qualifier.

Despite the achievement, it is still the countries like San Marino, Andorra and the Faroe Islands, the so-called whipping boys, that professional footballers will struggle to get motivated to play against.

Germany’s Thomas Müller has found himself embroiled in a war of words with the micro state, which saw San Marino release a humorous ten-point rebuttal. But they should be respected, because they certainly don’t walk out onto the pitch and expect to win major tournaments, as much as they would like to.

Instead, their reason for pulling on their jerseys is because they have pure, unbridled passion for a sport they have fallen in love with. And that truly is the most beautiful thing of all.

The Author

Dan Davis

A second year journalism student at Bournemouth University. I'm the sports editor for the university magazine and also a freelance sports journalist, writing for the likes of Back Page Football and Outside of the Boot.

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